The Poetry of Hart Crane
by R. W. B. Lewis
Princeton, 426 pp., $10.00
In August, 1928, William Carlos Williams wrote to Ezra Pound:
As to the Hart Crane-Josephson group—to hell with them all. There is good there but it’s not for me. As it stands, Crane is supposed to be the man that puts me on the shelf. But not only do I find him just as thickheaded as I am myself and quite as helplessly verbose at times but that he comes up into clarity far less often. If what he puts on the page is related to design, or thought, or emotion—or anything but disguised sentimentality and sloppy feeling—then I am licked….
Crane at that stage had published his first book of poems, White Buildings. The Bridge came in 1930, the Collected Poems in 1933, but they made no difference to Williams. In July, 1939, he wrote to Horace Gregory:
I liked the man but I stuck on his verse. We were too far apart there…. I was stumped by his verse. I suppose the thing was that he was searching for something inside, while I was all for a sharp use of the materials.
This is the gist of the case against Hart Crane. More elaborately conceived strictures are merely variations on Williams’s theme.
But it is well to keep the theme in mind while reading Mr. Lewis’s study of the poet. The book starts where a more exacting account might hope to end, with Crane as “one of the finest modern poets in our language, and one of the dozen-odd major poets in American history.” Mr. Lewis takes this estimate for granted, the case closed. He does not foster critical debate, quotes other critics only when they bring Crane gifts of praise. Richard Blackmur, for instance, wrote the most damaging study of Crane’s language, as well as the most illuminating. Mr. Lewis quotes him when the opinion is golden, but only then. F. R. Leavis was not alone in finding The Bridge “a wordy chaos, both locally and in sum,” the poet devoid of “any relevant gift.” John Peale Bishop said of Thomas Wolfe that he “achieved probably the utmost intensity of which incoherent writing is capable,” and thought of Crane in the same way, a poetic achievement similarly disabled. Allen Tate, Yvor Winters, and other qualified readers have written of Crane’s genius in terms which imply that an imputation of genius, in this case, does not settle the critical question. The debate continues.
The most serious charge against Mr. Lewis is that he does not take up the challenge, he elects not to see the gauntlet. Indeed, as the book proceeds, the praise becomes more extreme. At one point Crane is “the most immediately communicative of twentieth-century American poets.” Later, taking Crane’s will for the deed, Mr. Lewis calls him “the religious poet par excellence in his generation,” The Bridge “the only large-scale work of literature in its generation which…is finally concerned not with the death of God …